Israeli Deterrence and Dolphins
Last week, Germany agreed to sell Israel a sixth Dolphin-class submarine. Israel already has three of these capable submarines in service. Two others were either quietly delivered last year, or soon will be -- sources differ.
While the Dolphins have numerous conventional military applications, in reality, Israel appears to be in the process of creating the world's first nuclear counter-strike force based on small, conventionally powered submarines armed with long range-cruise missiles. While Israel has never officially admitted to possessing nuclear weapons and seems inclined to maintain its long-held posture of nuclear ambiguity, there is little doubt that she does indeed posses nuclear weapons and most likely has had weapon assembly capabilities since at least the late 1960s.
Iran has clearly emerged as Israel's chief regional antagonist. Iran's single-minded drive to acquire nuclear weapons -- and its threats to use them once deployed -- arguably presents the most serious strategic threat to Israel since the state's founding struggles in 1948.
This threat has led to almost endless conjecture regarding an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations. Israel's successful attack on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, the failure of international sanctions to stem the Iranian program, and elaborate Israeli maneuvers that appear directed toward Iran have ratcheted up this speculation to a near-fever pitch. Yet to this day, as Iran inches ever closer to becoming a nuclear power, Israel has kept its sword sheathed.
Over the past decades, Israel has acquired conventional weapons systems with Iran in mind. The four most significant are F-15I and F-16I long-range strike fighters, the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, and the Dolphin submarine.
The Dolphin is a German-manufactured diesel electric submarine. It has impressive submerged mission capability, sophisticated sensors, and advanced torpedoes. Upon the initial Dolphin sale, some observers focused on the installation of extra large 650mm torpedo tubes, in addition to standard 533mm tubes. While the larger tubes can be used for swimmer delivery vehicles, there is much speculation that their purpose is to deploy a new type of Israeli-made cruise missile.
The Israelis have long been interested in missiles of this type, having unsuccessfully sought to purchase the American Tomahawk (which could also be launched from a 533mm tube). The top candidate for making use of the 650mm tube is an extended-range version of the Israeli-designed Popeye Turbo missile. It would be a modification of the long-serving Popeye air-launched cruise missile, a weapon used by both the U.S. and Israel.
In 2000, Israel reportedly carried out tests in the Indian Ocean with cruise missiles of 1,500-km range. Whether the Popeye Turbo variant or another secret missile, this would give Israel a long-range cruise missile capability, similar to a Tomahawk, capable of taking out large above-ground targets, like cooling towers, transformers, generators, hardened buildings, and communication facilities. However, it is unlikely to be capable against deeply buried targets (as are much of Iran's nuclear facilities). Also, given the limited size and storage capacity of the Dolphin, each sub would be able to launch only a small number of missiles, thus greatly limiting these missiles' conventional utility against Iran.
The Dolphin is the most expensive single weapons system in the Israeli arsenal (even with German gifts and contributions to the costs) and cannot be risked absent clear necessity. Given the peril, and the relatively limited power of the Dolphins in conventional land attack, it seems unlikely that any Dolphins would be used for this purpose against Iran. Deployment to the Arabian Sea/Persian Gulf during a surprise conventional strike on Iran would be very hazardous. So Dolphins in such an event would most likely be used to gather intelligence, deploy commandos, or strike at Iranian naval vessels -- not hit Iranian nuclear facilities or land defenses.
Furthermore, while speculation regarding the Dolphins has persistently focused on Iran, historically, Israel's primary naval focus has been on the Mediterranean. Israel has never fought a major sea engagement in its southern waters, and its naval deployments have historically been heavily weighted toward the Mediterranean. Israel's primary trading partner is Europe, and the country's major ports, industry, and population centers are located on its long, vulnerable Mediterranean coastline. Although the causus belli of both the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars was, at least in part, Egyptian blockades of the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel relied on ground and air forces in both conflicts to break the blockades.
Until the peace treaty with Egypt (1979) and the reopening of the Suez Canal to international and Israeli shipping, Israel was unable to deploy major warships to the Red Sea other than by sailing around Africa. Shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israel deployed two Saar-class missile boats to Sharm el-Sheikh (then still in Israeli hands) by sending them around Africa, presumably to ward off another blockade at Bab el Mandeb [i]. But since the Suez Canal's reopening, Israel has been reluctant to deploy naval assets through the Canal, or maintain them in the Red Sea [ii]. Israel in 2009, evidently with Egyptian blessing, ostentatiously deployed a Dolphin through Suez and back, for maneuvers and presumably as a warning to Iran. But there appears to be no permanent basing for the Dolphins in Eilat.
Thus, the Dolphins are likely part of the Israeli arsenal for two reasons, and a conventional preemptive strike against Iran is simply not one of them. First, the Dolphins offer important conventional operational capabilities against Israel's enemies and rivals in the Mediterranean. At present, Syria, Hezb'allah, and Hamas present the only immediate hostile naval threats to Israel, but things can change rapidly in the Middle East. Israel faces two dangerous and powerful naval rivals in the form of Egypt and Turkey.
The second reason Israel has Dolphins is almost certainly on account of nuclear deterrence. If there was much doubt about the Dolphin's nuclear capabilities, the recent announcement that candidates for service in the IDF sub force must renounce dual citizenship indicates the highly sensitive nature of this assignment. Israel is a very small country with no defensive interior to speak of, and it would be particularly vulnerable to a nuclear first strike against a relatively short list of targets. Therefore, a failsafe nuclear deterrent has become an existential aspect of Israeli defense policy.
Dolphins equipped with the nuclear-armed extended-range Popeye Turbo or another similarly capable cruise missile could maintain deterrence from deep in the Mediterranean. The distance from the Israeli port of Haifa to Tehran is 1,573 km, about the purported range of the long-range Popeye Turbo. Haifa to Isfahan (site of one of Iran's critical nuclear facilities) is about the same distance. Dolphins sailing off the coast of northern Syria, or southern Turkey (in the vicinity of Cyprus), could launch from somewhat closer range. Thus, for purposes of nuclear deterrence, there is no need to risk Dolphins in the Arabian Sea or Persian Gulf.
So why do the Israelis send an occasional Dolphin through Suez? Deception is one likely reason, as well as concern for Israeli shipping in the Red Sea at Bab el Mandeb, where history shows that Israel is vulnerable to blockade.
The Iranian regime has threatened Israel with nuclear attack and suggested that the tiny state could not survive a single successful nuclear strike, which might be true. As the United States appears to be plotting a course that tolerates and seeks to manage a nuclear-capable Iran, this is tremendously worrisome. It suggests that very soon, an Iranian regime well-equipped with nuclear weapons might speculate that a successful first strike against Israel's clustered and exposed land-based nuclear facilities is feasible. The Dolphins, by providing a secure last leg of an Israeli nuclear triad, will help ensure that that never happens.
[i] Moshe Tzalel, From Icebreaker to Missile Boat the Evolution of Israel's Naval Strategy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), p. 63.